It's Too Soon to Say Which Theme Will Dominate the Midterm Elections

Charlie Cook

Winston Churchill once commanded that a server, “Take away this pudding, it has no theme.” While next year’s midterm elections will certainly have a theme, we don’t yet know what it will be.

At this point, there are two competing theories on what theme will dominate the 2014 congressional elections. The one that seems to have become the conventional wisdom is that Republicans will continue to have problems with perception of their brand—specifically with younger, minority, female, and moderate voters. The other scenario is that as more provisions of the Affordable Care Act kick in early next year, certain ones will alienate many voters who now either support or are ambivalent toward “Obamacare,” creating an undertow for Democratic candidates. Other scenarios could develop, but these now seem to be the most plausible.

If the first scenario develops, with the 2012 Republican problems persisting, the outcomes in the House and Senate would most likely be minimal. The House is pretty much already sorted out, each party having already picked off the low-hanging fruit. Fully 93 percent—all but 17—of the seats held by Republicans are in districts that were carried by Mitt Romney. Could 2014 really be much worse than 2012? Any House or Senate seat with an electorate that went for Romney last year will be pretty hard for Democrats to pick up next year. Only one GOP Senate seat is up in a state President Obama carried last year: that of Susan Collins in Maine. Collins appears to be quite solid, so she would only become endangered if she opted to retire. After that, the only seat Democrats could seriously look at is in Georgia, the only other state Romney didn’t win by double digits (he carried it by 8 percentage points). The major reason to keep an eye on the Peach State is the distinct possibility of GOP primary voters choosing an exotic candidate who could be problematic in a general election. Even then, Democrats would need a decent candidate. (Some in the party are eyeing Michelle Nunn, daughter of ex- Sen. Sam Nunn.) After that, Democratic chances appear exceedingly remote. Another way of looking at it is that there are few opportunities for Democrats to pick off GOP seats to offset whatever seats they may lose themselves. In short, outside of the worst-case scenario for Republicans, their downside risk is minimal. There just aren’t many places they could lose seats, short of the bottom completely falling out for their party.

The opposing theory, recently articulated by my Cook Political Report colleague Amy Walter, is the possibility that Obama­care becomes more controversial—if not radioactive—expanding the pool of voters who are anxious over or opposed to the law far beyond where it has been. Many of the law’s provisions don’t kick in until January 2014. Nobody knows exactly how voters will react to mandated changes in their insurance rates and coverage, whether individually bought or employer-sponsored. Since 2009 and 2010, those bitterly opposed have mostly been fairly conservative Republicans, folks who probably wouldn’t vote Democratic anyway. However, if more moderate and independent voters who are currently ambivalent about or even supportive of the law become opposed to it, this could become a real problem for Democrats that didn’t exist in 2012.

If this ACA fallout were to happen, the impact in the House would again be minimal. Just as few Republican members are in districts that could be receptive to Democratic candidates, just nine are held by Democratic members in districts that Romney carried. The House is presorted, which minimizes elasticity.

It’s the Senate that could become a problem for Democrats, but then again, we said that in 2011 and 2012. This time, 21 Democratic seats are up in 2014, compared with just 14 held by Republicans. Of those Democratic seats, seven are in states that Romney won. Conversely, only Collins in Maine is in an Obama-carried state. The caveat is that many arguments similar to these were articulated two years ago by me among others, and they turned out to be wrong. Can that happen again? Of course it can.

At this point, it’s just wisest to watch over the next six or eight months to see which of these narratives seem to gain traction, or alternatively, if some other dynamic seems to be taking hold. To be sure, there are partisans and ideologues on both sides who, in their own minds, are already quite sure which it will be. For the rest of us who try to watch things objectively rather than wishing for a particular outcome, we will just have to wait.